If we think of common business concepts as models (eg. financial models, organization charts, strategies, etc.) then those models can be represented/displayed/constructed. They can be represented in a spreadsheet, a Visio diagram or a PowerPoint slide. By their very nature, models contain less information than the things they represent. That is, in fact, the definition of a model.
Part of what I do in my line of work is to get people to compare models and surface the assumptions that went into the creation of their models. When the model was created SOME assumptions had to be made. Sometimes those assumptions are explicit, sometimes not. By learning about what other people are thinking and what makes their perspective unique, greater understanding of the models can occur, changes can be made and ideally two or more models can be combined in novel, innovative ways.
All of that to say…by having people create physical (3d) representations of their models, such as having them build a representation of a supply chain out of pipe cleaners and Styrofoam balls, more information about the model and its underlying assumptions begin to emerge. There can literally be different perspectives on the 3d model as you’ll have people clustered around a table and they each see it slightly differently as its constructed. As well, people tend to learn and retain more effectively when they are actually moving parts and pieces around. This process of co-creation and retention can result in what is commonly known as “buy in”. Actually, I would go so far as to say that this process of co-creation goes beyond “buy in” and moves into the realm of “believe in”. Believing in something is much more powerful than simply agreeing to it.
When I was leading a workshop at the VizThink conference in San Francisco I had the group quickly go through an exercise where they built 3d models of some basic business processes. Here are some photos from that workshop.